Medicare, the program that provides health coverage to those 65 and older, is so complicated that it needs a separate program to help its users understand its intricacies. And while the argument could be made that taxpayers shouldn't need to fund a program in order to understand another program, the reality is that the State Health Insurance Assistance Program -- SHIP -- provides a lifeline for seniors by helping them navigate through the morass that is Medicare.
Now comes the news that SHIP is about to be eliminated by a budget bill overwhelmingly approved last week by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Ending SHIP will save $52 million, which is a drop in the health-care bucket. In Ohio alone, the SHIP program saved seniors an estimated $20 million last year.
SHIP counselors provide Medicare beneficiaries free advice on how to choose from an array of drug and health insurance plans and -- perhaps most important -- how to challenge coverage denials. They advise Medicare patients how to get financial subsidies for premiums, co-payments and deductibles. They provide one-on-one counseling, host enrollment information clinics, and answer questions over toll-free telephone help lines. SHIP is about the only thing leveling the playing field that is Medicare's complicated rules.
"Medicare is very complicated," Howard Bedlin, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the National Council on Aging, told NPR. "Last year SHIPs helped 7 million people navigate this program and without those services, people will not be able to make well-informed choices. That's going to cost them money."
The Center for Medicare Advocacy, Medicare Rights Center and National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, have also called on Senate leaders to restore SHIP.
The full Senate isn't expected to vote on the budget bill until the fall, and then it would have to be reconciled with a version from the House, which has not yet drafted its bill.
Earlier this spring, more than 40 health and senior activist groups urged Congress to actually increase SHIP funding to keep pace with the growing Medicare population.
In California, the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) has also helped beneficiaries save money via things like showing them how to switch to drug plans that covered their medications.
"We have this huge influx of people turning 65 and they are cutting the program that helps this population find benefits they need?" Bonnie Burns, a training and policy specialist who trains HICAP counselors, told NPR. "That makes absolutely no sense."
No argument here.